So a volcano erupted in Iceland, they tell me. I’m always interested in what goes on in Iceland, because it’s saga country, and I’ve been there and enjoyed it. Not much good has been happening in those parts recently, which has provided the opportunity for many (including Rush Limbaugh, but he was joking) to ponder the question, as old as Job, of “What have I (they) done to deserve this?”
It brings to mind a story from the sagas (I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t tell you which one; thought it was Njal’s, but it’s not) about the debate held at the Icelandic Althing (national assembly) around the year 1000, when they adopted Christianity by legislative decision. Word came that a volcano had erupted, and was threatening the farm of one of the participants. A heathen claimed the disaster was a threat from the old gods. Snorri the Chieftain (who appears in my novel West Oversea—you can read about it there) pointed to the ancient lava floes all around their meeting place and asked, “And what were the gods angry at when this flowed?”
Because back then, it was Christianity that was hard-headed, skeptical world-view.
My own church body takes a strong position against watching for signs. We believe that God has already told us everything we need to know, in the Holy Scriptures.
And of course point of view makes a difference. It’s not as if faithful churches and their members have never been victims of natural disasters. Somebody made up a song after the great San Francisco earthquake (I quote from memory*, so I’ve probably got it wrong in spots):
And if it’s true God smote the town
For being over-frisky,
Why did He burn the churches down
And spare McSweeney’s whisky?
And yet, and yet. When a tornado hit downtown Minneapolis last August (something that never happens) precisely while the Very Large Lutheran Church Body That Shall Remain Nameless was deliberating the ordination of homosexuals, shaking up the convention center and knocking a cross off the roof of Central Lutheran Church (often called our local Lutheran cathedral) across the street… well, I tried not to see it as a Sign, but I find I’m psychologically incapable of the operation. It looked to me like that scene from Young Frankenstein, when Gene Wilder shouts, “No! Not that lever!” and the camera cuts to Marty Feldman beside a big sign that says, “NO! NOT THAT LEVER!” Some things just cross the line into “slapping you over the head with a Chick Tract” territory.
I think my own (not very dogmatic) view is that sometimes—in extraordinary cases—God does send a message through natural disasters. But only as a sort of legal notice, like the signs landlords put up on tenants’ doors, telling them they’re evicted after a certain date. By the time it gets to that point, nobody ever actually pays up, but the landlord has to do it so he can legally chuck the deadbeats out on the street.
Which says nothing whatever about Iceland. To really be a sign, a thing needs to be unusual, I think.
Volcanoes in Iceland aren’t exactly what you’d call unexpected.
*Memory of something I read. Not the actual event.